Thursday, April 17, 2014

Can we stop with the age labels already?

At a recent meeting, one attendee made an observation about how, when it comes to learning solutions, young people are comfortable with the use of technology, while older people are not. I challenged this, pointing out that I (being north of my 50th birthday) fall into the 'older' category, and I am perfectly comfortable with digital solutions (just as well, since I design them!). The person responded with, "Yes, but you're the exception."

It wasn't an unfriendly exchange, that was simply her perception. One that I'm finding to be fairly widespread, and many late adopters are citing this as their reason for delaying the deployment of digital learning components in their learning solutions - they still have some older people on the staff.

But is time we put this perception to bed, now. For one thing, it's ageist.
Jane Hart and Harry get techie together
I think generational labels like digital immigrants/natives, millennials, GenY, etc are anything but helpful in this regard, because they carry with them implications which the reality simply doesn't bear out. In fact, many of the movers and shakers in this field are no longer in the first flush of youth by any stretch of the imagination.

Let's look at some case studies:
  • Today, I read a blog post by Tony Bates, announcing his retirement. Tony recently turned 75, and many commenters are skeptical that he will be able to stay retired, because he lives and breathes online learning.
  • Jay Cross is often credited with being the first person to use the term e-learning. Whether or not this is true isn't really the point. What is the point is that Jay is one of the movers and shakers in the field of digital learning, and - as far as I know - his 60th birthday is in the past. The link takes you to a website, but you'll find him on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Diigo, Pinterest... 
  • Jay is the CEO of the Internet Time Alliance, a collective which helps organisations become more networked, collaborative, distributed and agile. The other members of this group are Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings (think 70:20:10), Clark Quinn and Jane Hart (of the annual 100 top tools list - see photo). I'm on hugging terms with all these people, so I hope they won't mind me telling you that none of them will ever see 50 again. On his Facebook page, Charles recently shared a video of himself playing the banjo (the man is a skilled musician, as so many learning geeks appear to be) on the occasion of his 65th birthday. Jane Hart's Facebook page is full of photos of her adored grandchildren.
  • Stephen Downes is a highly regarded "commentator in the fields of online learning and new media" (as his wikipedia page asserts). His OLDaily blog posts are varied and interesting - required reading for anyone who wants to keep up to date with developments in the field. He celebrated his 55th birthday earlier this month.
  • Together with Stephen Downes, George Siemens developed the Theory of Connectivism as a way of describing learning in the digital era. In his early 40s, George is probably going to be the baby of this group that I'm throwing together here today.  I just hope he doesn't mind being lumped together with all these oldies ;)
There are many other examples of luminaries in the field, and I could sit here all day, listing people - purely from memory - who are leading lights in the field and north of 50. But let's come down a notch to more everyday people:
  • My Facebook friends list includes at least two people in their 80s.
  • I keep in touch with my 74 year old Mom by means of WhatsApp and Skype. When a WhatsApp message arrives from her, my screen announces her as 'Barbara the Legend'. And that's what she is.
  • My doctors' surgery has an interactive screen by which patients of all ages make their arrival known. I've seen them do it.
  • Buying groceries online and having them delivered is a boon for elderly and/or infirm customers. I have no concrete examples, but I'm confident they exist, and that more people would use the facility if they just got a little help with the initial learning curve.
  • Autobanks are used by people of all ages. Next time you use one, take a look at the demographic of the other users.
  • eReaders are a great tool for bookworms with arthritis and/or grandchildren. Imagine being a grandparent with an entire library of books in your handbag/pocket! I'm not a granny yet, but I know all about how the pain of arthritis! There are some fabulous interactive ebooks to explore with grandchildren.
  • I've read Amazon book and product reviews by people of all ages.
  • And on and on and on
We have got to stop thinking of digital spaces as being the comfort zone of the 'young'. Jane Bozarth often refers to herself as 'the oldest millennial'. I think there are several others who might give her a run for her money (caveat: I have no idea how old Jane is).
Give your older staff members some credit. I'm pretty sure they'll surprise you.
Before I go, let me share this BBC article (with video) about 'cybergrannies'.


Unknown said...

Hi Karyn, Thanks for this article.
Not only are the over 50s equally skilled in the use of technology they are - unfortunately often overlooked when it comes to non-technological forms of training. This is despite them having (in some cases) 20 years more of working life ahead of them. See my blogs and comments on this here:

The upsycho said...

Hi Robyn. Thanks for your comment, and the link. You're absolutely right, of course. Mind you, these days, it is increasingly possible to take matters into our own hands and go the informal learning route. I do that pretty much all the time. I can't be sitting around waiting for a course to come along. When I want to know more about something, I can find ways of learning about it on my own. ;)

And let me tell you from personal experience that it's not just in the learning and development that the shortfall lies. Legislation notwithstanding, there is plenty of age discrimination in the recruitment process. Before I took the job I now have, I was turned down for another role after three interviews because I was 'too senior'. Before any of the interviews, they had had access to my CV and any number of online resources as an indication of how 'senior' I was. The only thing they hadn't had access to was my very obviously fifty-something face. The agency which put me forward for the role (and which had conducted the first interview) suggested that I consider making a case of it, but I didn't have the stomach for the battle.

There will inevitably be older and younger people on the staff complement of pretty much any organisation. If we wait until the current 'oldies' have retired, there will be something that today's 30- and 40- somethings can be said to be too old for.